Friday, June 27, 2008

Tribute Paid: At the Intersection of Spirit and Money

Tribute Paid: At the Intersection of Spirit and Money

The realms of spirit and religion, as engaged as they are with the non-material world, still have to find a way to work in a world that trades in money. That religious organizations can be tax-exempt in the United States is proof enough of that. And in Germany, tax dollars actually flow through the government to support the churches. While this is definitely not an essay on the separation of church and state, it is about the intersection of religious or spiritual practice, a private matter, and the world of money, which tends to be a public matter. Cultures treat these matters in ways that reflect their belief systems and political agreements, and there are many variants. While one could make a life study of this topic, my hope is that two perspectives, conveyed in two paintings and a poem, will shed a little light on those differences as stimulus for considering our own inherited or consciously developed assumptions, beliefs, and agreements.

I will open with an episode from the New Testament. In the Gospel of Matthew 17:24, Peter, confronted by the tax collector, tells him that they are planning on paying their tax. When Peter reports this, Jesus establishes through logical inquiry, that he and Peter have no real obligation to pay the tax. However, in order “not to give offense to them,” Jesus instructs Peter to catch a fish in whose mouth he would find a coin to pay their tax.

This scene, Tribute Money, was famously rendered by Masaccio as one of his many frescos in the Brancacci Chapel of Santa Maria della Carmine in Florence, 1426-1428. In this panoramic rendition, Peter is on the left taking the coin from the fish’s mouth. We also see Peter paying the tax on the right side of the painting in a kind of time-sweep of narration. The aesthetic magic of this filmic representation served as a pale reminder of the quiet miracle in the biblical sequence. That the coin was found in the mouth of a fish is laden with Christian symbolism. But at the time Christianity was nascent. Jesus understood the revolutionary nature of the new religious impulse he was bringing to humanity, birthed as it was out of Judaism an in the context of the, not yet Holy, Roman Empire. He knew that he had his enemies and detractors in both camps, and was careful to distinguish political treachery from more innocent spiritually-motivated behavior. In this frame of reference, money and taxes are the stuff of politics.

The politics of taxes comes up again later in Matthew in 22:17-22. But this time, the outcome is quite different. When Jesus is approached by another tax collector, he responds to the disingenuous question of whether it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, by first asking to see the money-piece (as illustrated here) required for the tax. He then asks whose likeness and inscription is on the coin. The tax collector answers that it is Caesar’s. After castigating the collector for being a hypocrite, Jesus then speaks his oft quoted line: “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” He could identify the hypocrisy because he knew that the collector’s own religious practice would not really have him subject to Caesar’s tax, but that he and his fellow Pharisees and Herodites had in some ways already sold out to the state. Jesus also knew that the question was part of an entrapment scheme to frame him as an enemy of the regime. The collectors, caught off guard by the validity of his statements, were disappointed in their attempt and left him. Jesus understood the distinction between matters of state and spirit, and understood that each has different terms of engagement.

In this oil painting from 1518 (now in the Dresden Gallery, Germany), Titian renders the moment of the transactional conversation from 22:17 in a highly editorial manner. The Herodian character is painted in a darker smokier palette and the distribution of light does not follow pictorial logic. Jesus seems to emanate his own light. Neither is he actually touching the money (filthy lucre as it became). What strikes me as essential, however, is that Jesus is looking directly into the other man’s eyes and thus establishes an energetic dynamic quite separate]from the hand-to-hand transaction below. This kind of intense eye contact is not a common part of financial transactions, as far as I remember or practice. It speaks to a quality of engagement that directly touches the other party (for better or worse) and, in doing so, validates the level of relationship essential to bringing a new consciousness to money. As Titian portrayed it, Jesus’ gaze was disarming and served to unmask the deceit of the other—the power of spirit over the power of money, the rule of moral law over the laws of the state.

This moral force looks a little different in the poem Deciding by William Stafford. He wrote from a far more modern and less doctrinal vantage point. Further, he was awake to a nuance of an Americas consciousness that moves beyond the duality of heaven and earth, spirit and matter, even good and evil, as played out in the scenes from the Gospel of Matthew. Here is Stafford’s poem:

One mine the Indians worked had
gold so good they left it there
for God to keep.

At night sometimes you think
your way that far, that deep,
or almost.

You hold all things or not, depending
not on greed but whether they suit what
life begins to mean.

Like those workers you study what moves,
what stays. You bow, and then, like them,
you know—

What’s God, what’s world, what’s gold.

To make the comparison between money and gold requires an imaginative leap; but in the context of the poem, gold is a kind of currency. It clearly has value as a precious metal. In the myth of Midas, in which everything he touches turns to gold including his daughter, gold is a deep materialistic curse. But, it also has an equally long history of representing consciousness as an alchemical transformation from the base metal lead. Stafford takes us past the duality into a kind of triptychal configuration that identifies the spiritual (God), the material (world) and, then, a third place (gold) that actually embodies the potential for both in its physicality and aura. It is the genius of this poem to name an inner capacity of the miners for knowing how to transcend the simple duality, and instead to exercise being in both places at once—and thus in the third place. Jesus was an exemplar and teacher of this conscious capacity to see both what belongs to the world and what belongs in the realm of spirit, and beyond that to be able to discern and name when the two are out of integrity. This kind of knowing is intuitional in nature, and worthy of being emulated even in if one is likely to fail.

Money calls upon our lower or desire nature, what Stafford points to as greed, because it is associated with the realms of rights and power, and is synonymous with access to material goods and services. Through government issued currency, the state regulates the financial transactional sector to a degree, especially interest rates, and thus also gains denomination over taxation. Taxation is a material part of a citizen’s participation in the commonwealth, a required gift as a share of the cost of government. Further, because we are so dependent upon money and the marketplace to provide for us in our evolved citified culture, money carries with it dominion over our sense of well being, our sense of self-sufficiency—a place dangerously close to our identity and spirit.

Given this, it is not surprising to find a sense of well-being and abundance present in some of the so-called poorest communities, provided that the sense of community itself is intact; a gift economy is the true currency and taxes are irrelevant. This somewhat idyllic picture points to the presence of spirit in the care people have and practice for each other. The eye-to-eye gaze depicted by Titian is one level of communitas or communion that Jesus was already practicing with his disciples. How the money changes hands is another level, one often less attended to because of money’s the long materialistic history, and perpetuated by our own inherited assumptions about it. Like the alchemists and the miners, we have an opportunity to transform money, not by being ruled by our desire nature, but rather by seeing that it is connected to our intentions whether moral-ethical or disingenuous. Money is both material and spiritual. Our task is to find that third place where both realities are always present and potent, and yet remain integrated.

John Bloom


At Saturday, June 28, 2008 9:11:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The third space is one of consciousness, the meeting-place of world and spirit, yes, but also the transcendence of both.


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